American Sign Language


The history of American Sign Language dates back to 1815. Although Europe had already experienced possibility of helping the deaf by Abbe Charles Michel de l’Epee in France, it took the initiative of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet to pioneer learning to the deaf in Hartford in 1817.  While walking around in search of people to join church, Abbe encountered two deaf girls and upon interacting with their mother, he decided to turnaround their future by taking them to church. In the church he noted the sisters communicating through gestures and innovated a unique way of teaching them to read and write (Nickens 150). By 1760, Abbe had started a school for the deaf.

In 1815, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet began to teach his neighbor’s deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell. The neighbor decided to sponsor Gallaudet to France to pursue further studies in sign language. In France, Gallaudet met Laurent Clerc who had been a student of Abbe Sicard, a successor of Abbe de l’Epee. Laurent Clerc had become an accomplished sign language teacher at the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes. When Gallaudet was returning to the US, he persuaded Clerc to accompany him owing to his expertise in deaf education. On arrival in the US in 1817, they started American School for the Deaf in Hartford.

Jonathan Lamber who came from Kent, England to Chilmark with deaf children contributed in boosting teaching the deaf in what became the Martha’s Vineyard. His unique show of relative consistency in the teaching the deaf and making Chilmark destination of the deaf is considered significant in the development of ASL by 1800s. The story of Martha ’s Vineyard attracted significant scholarly research on genealogical factors of the deaf community. Alexander Graham Bell particularly took interest on Martha ’s Vineyard (Duke 56).

Alexander Graham Bell was equally influential in improving deaf education. His encounter with the mother who had difficulty in hearing encouraged him to pursue the interest of the deaf and dumb. However, his major contribution was through what started as ideological conflict with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s son, Edward Gallaudet. His opinion on eliminating exclusive use of gestures as possible threat of isolating and propagating deaf marrying each other popularized the debate. By 1880, significant adjustments had been made in teaching the mute and deaf (Duke 76).

It is also worthnoting the creation of NAD in 1880 by deaf leaders. In the wake of civil rights activism, the deaf community was represented by their leaders who wanted a uniform language and congress recognition through use of sign language. It is during this time that ASL even gained more ground.

It is worth to note that Carol Padden was born a deaf in a family with another deaf brother. The parents were part of the Gallaudet University fraternity. In that respect, she was brought up in a bilingual culture with English as part of the American Sign Language. After marrying Humphries, she wrote the story of the deaf culture from a personal experience. She is credited with publishing a book Deaf in America: Voices from A Culture that acted as the eye opening for policy makers when it comes to the people belonging to the deaf community, their challenges and unexploited potential. The significance of her work has been critical in developing appropriate teaching models for the deaf. In 1988 Padden opened a new era in ASL by exploring how educators, government and others stakeholders can approach the deaf community for quality, sustainable and inclusive learning.

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